Blain’s Morning Porridge – 29 April 2021: The Need to Regulate Big Tech (Part 2); Moral Hazards in Space?
“Insufficient facts always invite danger.”
This afternoon: It is right to let a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs fill Earth’s already crowded orbital space to establish non-terrestrial internet monopolies? What are the risks, and are the costs justified? Should orbital space be a public good?
A few years ago I read a Sci-fi novel where the moon breaks into three parts. Everyone oohs and ahhs at the beauty of the new multiple moon system until it becomes apparent the new moons are colliding, creating hundred of smaller pieces. The pace of collisions increases chaotically towards a tipping point as the number of rocks increases, until the space debris starts bombarding the earth, wiping out life on the planet. Devasting stuff, and very unlikely.
But there is a genuine scientific parallel.
There are already millions of pieces of space junk orbiting the planet – ranging from broken satellites to discarded space gloves, some spanners and lots of flecks of paint that’s broken off spaceships. These orbit at stupendous speed. If they hit anything, they have the potential to cause enormous damage. If they destroy anything, then a single piece of debris can create a whole cloud of debris, each piece of which can cause similar damage, raising the potential of critical out of control chain reaction and a cloud of debris making space travel very dangerous.
Scary… if you are spaceman.
Many smart Tech investors consider the most valuable private company on the planet is Elon Musk’s Space X and his internet constellation Starlink. There are a host of other firms also shooting for space-based coms dominance; including the UK government’s recently acquired OneWeb, Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper (funded by Amazon), ViaSat and Telesat. All of them want to launch satellites into low-earth-orbit to win a share of space-based internet.
Space X is doing a superb job transporting astronauts to the ISS. They are perfecting reusable rockets. I’m excited they may fly to the moon. I’ll be even happier if Musk gets his way and goes to Mars. I’ve written about the company a number of times: To the Stars, But Mars First, and Rocketmen and Viruses.
Despite my admiration… I am not convinced we actually need the Starlink system. The risk it might destroy the viability of future space-based businesses is very small. But do we really need multiple competing space-based systems? And if not, should not Orbital Space be a public good regulated for the good of all, rather than the enrichment of the few?
Wouldn’t it be better environmentally, at a much lower cost to simply continue to improve current terrestrial connectivity, rather than lob up hundreds of nasty big polluting rockets on the basis some Nutjob prepper in isolation in the Rockies will be able to post insane hatred on the internet? Maybe all these rockets could be used for obtaining resources from the solar system, or learning more about space based threats like asteroids or solar flares?
Space based internet is a reality. It’s interesting to note the French have now taken a stake in OneWeb, where the UK holds the golden share.
Today there may be 4000 satellites in orbit – a number that has nearly doubled in just a few years. That number is set to increase quadratically as all the new Satellite constellations go up.
It was once fun to spot the occasional satellite traversing the sky, or streaking across a telescope viewfinder. Astronomers increasingly report trains of satellites are obscuring their stellar observations. The new Starlink satellites are 99% brighter than other “objects of all types currently in Earth Orbit”, said a US University of Michigan astronomer. There are around 9000 visible stars – but they are increasingly fazed by clouds of satellites “crawling” across the skies.
Who cares about Astronomers when there is money to be made? Well… I do!
The Low Earth Orbital (LEO) space will become increasingly crowded with potentially 30-40,000 new active satellites to be launched in the next few years. The lower their orbits, the more dense and more concentrated orbital risks become – but the advantage is shorter latency, the time delay caused by distance. LEO satellites latency should compare with pre-5G terrestrial internet in terms of speed of communication.
But, as I said in the intro, space debris is a rising risk. A malfunctioning satellite is just a lump shooting round the planet at 25k mph looking for something else to hit. The denser the space becomes, the riskier it gets. For years space geeks have warned about debris circling the planet. The proverbial fleck of paint has enough momentum to destroy a satellite or puncture the International Space Station (ISS).
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a request from Space X to lower the orbits of nearly 3000 licenced units from 1000 km to 550 km orbits, joining the 1400 Starlink birds already flying at 540-580 km. Jeff Bezos intends to layer his 3,236 unit Kuiper belt of satellites at 630km. Orbital Space is getting crowded.
The UK’s OneWeb claim Space X had a near collision with its satellites in early April – which Space X says never happened. A battle is underway – Kuiper and OneWeb are objecting to the lowered Starlink orbits, noting a collision would be like a “bomb” going off. Their argument makes sense – if satellites collide they break up into lots of smaller random pieces of debris, each a little bomb in its own right.
Each little piece of debris has the potential to hit something else – a chain reaction creating more and more debris eventually obliterating all functional satellites in LEO, and potentially forming a barrier to future launches to higher orbits. It’s a doomsday scenario the boffins claim will happen.
Of course, boffins always predict the worse. The sky may be full of junk, but collisions are very rare. During the last unpleasantness in Europe, there were multiple predictions that bomber streams raiding Germany in the dark would experience multiple collisions – which seldom happened. There are far more instances of bombers being hit by bombs dropped from above them.
Musk also disagrees about the risks. His team say LEO is safer. Musk is very keen because he has identified that a vast constellation of LEO satellites covering the entire planet is his second road to riches. If he can charge $80 a month for access, he gets rich (see previous Morning Porridge: He will also take a considerable subsidy from the US government ($20 bln over ten years) to provide rural internet services.
But do we need to use satellites?
The history of communications satellites goes back to Telstar in the 1960s. In the 1990s a host of telecoms companies including Globalstar and Iridium planned satellite coms networks, but with the rapid rollout and increasing speed of terrestrial internet and mobile phones left the ultra-expensive satellite systems floundering. They never found widespread adoption. (On the yacht I still have an Iridium phone – but I won’t renew any contract until I know I’m going to be miles offshore. A $89 Starlink connection might be a much better option.)
LEO Starlink satellites will only stay in orbit 3-5 years and then need replaced before they burn up in the atmosphere. They are cheap and cheerful to manufacture – which makes them look a viable alternative to terrestrial internet. However, the apparent simplicity hides the reality. The biggest cost is launch – even Space X’s reusable Falcon rockets cost money. Generally, costs come in at $45-65K per kilogramme. Then there is the cost of Earth Station Antennas. The new sat firms all expect widespread adoption will bring down costs. Expectations are just another type of hope – which is never a good investment strategy!
The bottom line is the evolving battle for Earth’s orbital space is another example where Tech is in danger of trumping common sense. Musk has first mover advantage, and he’s using his reusable rockets to establish himself as a monopoly supplier.
I will admit… I find Musk…. distasteful. There is a great article on him in this morning’s WSJ: Elon Musk’s War on Regulators. To quote: “Federal Agencies say he’s breaking the rules and endangering people.” The article sums him up well.. A toddler who will do anything to get his way. A narcissistic showman with a nasty streak – his appalling treatment and slander of a British cave-diver who laughed at his showboating plans to rescue stranded children in a cave demonstrated his contempt for others and sense of entitlement.
I lost faith in Tesla around that time – it cost me the future stock upside when I dumped most of my position. I justify it because I ascribe to the view companies are part of society, and must follow social rules and conventions. Musk does not. He doesn’t do sorry, play by the rules or take responsibility for his actions. He gets away with it because he feels entitled to do so. He may or may not be a genius – that’s immaterial.
What are the dangers? 2000 satellites per annum crashing back on to the planet? Crowded orbital space? Small. But would you trust the future to Musk? Is it right he’ll get to farm monopoly profits by taking away our view of the stars and future?